Two Roman centurions walk into a bar.
The bartender looks up. “What will you have?”
The first centurion holds up a finger. “Give me a martinus.”
The bartender shoots the centurion a quizzical look. “Don’t you mean a martini?”
The centurion growls, “Hey, if I wanted two I would have asked for them!”
I can see by the look on your face this is not Hysterical Fiction, it’s Historical Fiction. Or perhaps you’re thinking Horrible History.
Well, indeed this lecture is about Historical Fiction. But there are a couple of things you need to know before we get started. First, this discussion will deal mainly with novels, so you’ll have to extrapolate for short stories, poems, etc. Second, I ask you to please hold your questions until the end, otherwise I’ll get sidetracked. And, most importantly, you should know I am a thief! I have stolen almost all the concepts and ideas I’ll present today from someone else—including that joke, which I heard C.C. Humphries, who wrote The French Executioner, give as the keynote speaker at a conference. While it might sound like I’m name-dropping, I’m trying to give credit where it is due.
So what is Historical Fiction? When does history begin? Fifty years is the cutoff line, according to the two governing organizations—if you can call them that—the Historical Novel Society and the Historical Writers of America. I’ll talk more about them at the end. But Historical Fiction is any fiction written about people and events of more than fifty years ago.
That’s an awfully wide genre, and kind of unfair. It can include a myriad of fiction: Historical Romance, Historical Thrillers, Historical Mysteries, Historical Action/Adventure, Historical Military, Time Travel, Historical Fantasy, even Alternate History—which is usually found on the shelf with Science Fiction in bookstores. One subgenre is even considered a genre in itself: Westerns. Which all leads to the problem of representation. If you’re looking for an agent, editor or publisher, and they say they take Historical Fiction, how do you know if they take YOUR Historical Fiction? They might take Historical Romance, but not Historical Military. Check what they publish or who they represent. Or find authors in your niche and check who represents or publishes them. But do your research on them.
What sets Historical Fiction apart from other genres?
RESEARCH. Historical Fiction demands more research than any other genre, except perhaps techno-thrillers and some SciFi. But that’s the fun part, right? You get to find out cool stuff about all the history you wanted to know. It’s a big part of why we write Historical Fiction. But it can also lead the FIRST PITFALL of Historical Fiction: spending all your time on research without putting words on the page. That may sound ridiculous, but it happens. If you did that, you certainly wouldn’t be the first.
Where do we go for research? Where is the first place everybody is going to start?
The internet can be a good source of information, especially for background stuff. But a word of caution: there is false information on the internet, too. Don’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia. Double check your sources, which is always a good idea.
The internet can be a great source in another way: you can find original reference work downloaded to the internet. Oklahoma State University has downloaded the complete Chronicles of Oklahoma, the quarterly journal of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Started in 1921, the Chronicles are full of articles and reports, often masters and doctoral theses, about varying aspects of Oklahoma history. There are others, too. At one conference they were talking about a road atlas of 1500’s England that was on the internet—a valuable resource for authors writing in that time period.
• Libraries and Books
Books, of course, are the first place to look, and always a great place to find information.
• Museums and Historic Sites, some of which are State or National Parks
Take pictures, take their pamphlets, search their gift shops and bookstores for information. On all these, be sure to tell the curators or guides who you are, that you’re writing a story. and what information you are looking for. They’ll almost always be glad to help. And they may reveal information you never knew you wanted.
• Archives and Presidential Libraries
At this level you will want to already know the background information and be looking for specifics. It is easy to get overwhelmed unless you know the specific information you need. Again, tell them what you’re writing and the information you looking for.
Experts come in all forms: college professors, knowledgeable amateurs, even those museum curators and historical site guides. In interviewing experts, especially, do the background research first. They will usually be flattered and delighted to find someone interested in their area of expertise. Contact them beforehand. Schedule an appointment. Be sure you seek specific info, but be ready for other questions that might come up. Do your homework; write down your questions and be ready to write or record the answers. Be polite and professional. If you take a recorder, ask them first if you can record them. Don’t waste their time, though you may find yourself tapping your feet, looking at your watch. (“I’ve got to go pick up the kids. . .”)
How much research should you do? That depends on if you’re writing a Period Piece, which is whole fiction with an historic setting, or actual Historical Fiction, which is about past events and people. In other words, how much is fiction and how much is history? Either requires enough research to know general details of the time and place, but true Historical Fiction will demand specific information on top of that. I once read an Historical Romance of medieval England by Janet Evanovich that had the basic setting details, places and maybe the king and queen correct, but the castles and titles and people were complete fiction. By the way, I don’t read much romance, but I am a firm believer that you should read outside your genre. Every genre has great writers, and it seems easier to see what craft techniques a good writer uses if you’re less caught up in the story. Patricia Cornwell is one for me. She’s a tremendous writer, but morgue detective work—meh. Same with Stuart Woods: tremendous writer; stories are superficial, to me.
But I digress. True Historical Fiction will demand far more historic detail than a Period Piece. I like to know enough about the subject—and you may do something completely different—to write what Anne Lamotte calls the “crummy first draft.” (She used a far more colorful word than “crummy.”) Then I know what other details I have to discover.
How much research do you include in your story? Like so many things, that’s up to the writer. But beware the SECOND PITFALL of Historical Fiction: too much information. You’ve researched for months and you want to share all those cool, exciting nuggets with your reader. Problem is, the story has to flow smoothly, and too much information—adding all those cool little historic details you’ve learned—can bog down your story or sidetrack it. You want just enough historical information to tell the story accurately, not to hinder it with excess detail.
Which brings us to the THIRD PITFALL of Historical Fiction: Telling of the time, place and events through the eyes of those who lived through it, instead of telling the story of people who lived through the time, place and events. That may sound like a minute distinction, but it’s really the difference between writing history and telling a story. I gravitate to Lisa Cron’s definition: A story is about how someone grapples with a problem they can’t avoid, and how they change in the process. A story in any genre is about people, and has to stand on its own. The history should be the setting, the story world, not the focus of the novel. Otherwise a reader would be better off with a nonfiction history.
It’s a common mistake for first time historical novelists. I made it. A couple of my critique partners did, too, which I called to their attention. With one I didn’t express myself well enough until he finished his novel. He proudly presented that last chapter and I tore my hair out and finally found the very expressive words. To his credit, he didn’t beat the snot out of me. But it is a common error.
So what is all this research good for? Worldbuilding! Creating an environment for your story to thrive. For Historical Fiction especially, it is a crucial element in elevating your story to the highest level.
How do we do that? By giving your reader a lot to experience, a lot to look at, a lot to ponder, to worry about, to talk about, to think about in this world. Many authors try to describe the setting instead of drawing the characters—and reader—into the story world. Describing the world of your story clearly, even with sensual detail, doesn’t mean the reader cares about it. It takes something else—getting the reader to experience that story world, react to it, get involved with it. To do that the author has to build the point-of-view character’s experience of that world, how they felt, what they noticed, how the world seems to them. After all, when a reader is involved in a novel—the one that keeps them up nights until they finish that next chapter—what are they really doing? They’re not reading a story; they’re living the story through the character(s), chewing on, worrying, thinking, “Would I do the same thing if it were me?”
I want you to think about YOUR story, your work-in-progress, the story you just finished or are about to write. Every story world has to make sense to the reader. They have rules of their own. What’s the #1 rule in your story, the rule everyone lives by? What’s the unspoken, or unwritten, rule? What is the rule most people don’t know? Or ignore? What is the rule that is enforced on some, but not on others? Who enforces these rules? Is someone charged with enforcement or is there a secret society, maybe vigilantes, who do the enforcing? How? With warning or without? Who breaks the rules? How are they punished? Broken on the wheel, thrown in a dungeon, drummed out of the service, caned, keelhauled, banished to a deserted island or a frozen wasteland?
In your character’s world there are bound to be special languages, codes, terminology. What is celebrated in your world? How? What are the rites of passage? Of marriage? Of death? Do they celebrate with dance? Maybe the Minuet, a Stomp Dance, a Polka, or the Virginia Reel? Do they sing or chant? Do they celebrate with food? What do they eat? Gruel, jellied eels, oatcakes, terrapin stew, pheasant under glass? Or maybe, like the French of the 1500’s, they feed oceanic bottom dwellers to prisoners—who grew fat on lobster. Are there legendary places in your world? Is there a Lover’s Lane, a Haunted House, an Enchanted Forest, a safe place to go or somewhere no one will venture? Is there an unsolved mystery people can’t forget? Or abiding danger they can’t ignore? What are the local delicacies? Vices? Do they drink, smoke, gamble? The ancient Mayans (I think) would gamble their families and even themselves on a bet. Does your character enjoy these things or not? Why? What does your character find wonderful about this world? Intolerable? What is funniest thing that’s ever happened in your story world? What about this place bothers your character? What does s/he love? What does s/he hate? What makes your character long to leave? What holds them in place? What would they give up to stay or leave?
One thing is for sure: at this point we are far from a mere description of how the place looks.
This is all emotional stuff, created by what we feel when we dwell in your story. The more we feel, the more we experience, the more alive and real and memorable your story world will become. When we have highly emotional experiences in a story world it comes alive on the page. We hate to leave it and can’t wait to return.
What else do we need to know about Historical Fiction? How about the FOURTH PITFALL, which is really more of a good/bad problem than a pitfall: Historical events and people are fundamental plot elements that anchor the structure of your plot. But these same historical events are restrictive. They demand to be included. You have to follow the script.
Do you have leeway in changing the historical facts? Of course—it’s Historical Fiction! When can you change facts? Once again, it’s up to you. But don’t be careless with it. I suggest you only change the history when doing so will enhance the story, for good, specific reason(s). And remember, any fictional elements have to be reasonable and possible.
Oftentimes authors add an Historical or Author’s Note at the end of the novel when they toy with the facts, explaining what they have changed and why. The Notes might also include other elements, like further reading or additional information. Or all those cool historical nuggets they had to leave out of the story.
Sometimes, at the beginning of a book, an author might also add maps or reference lists for clarification or to keep the reader grounded. Bernard Cornwell does that in his Saxon series, with a list of medieval place names and their corresponding modern ones. Due to the number of confusing Native American and English names in my story, I did something similar.
Do you use real names and places? You can or not, it’s up to you. Whereas modern people can be offended or bring lawsuits, historical figures are usually considered in the public domain and thus, fair game.
How about dialogue—or, rather, dialect? Should word choice reflect the dialect of the time period? Or should it be tailored for the modern reader? Again, that’s up to the author. It can be a delicate balance. We have all seen it both ways. Often dialect will become easier for the reader the more they see of it. Speaking strictly for myself, dialect is fine, but I don’t want my reader slowed by having to decipher meanings.
What about political correctness? How do you balance modern sensibilities with historical reality? That can be a real problem, like walking a no-win tightrope. And again, every author has to make his/her own decision. The best advice I can offer is to bear in mind that modern sensibilities do exist.
Historical Fiction’s FIFTH PITFALL, and toughest to avoid: Anachronisms. Whatever you do, make sure your factual details are correct. Many of your readers will read your book because it covers their area of interest. A lot of them will know the details well—maybe better than you—and if you’re wrong about something, they’ll let you know it. If the mistakes pile up or are especially egregious, they make think you don’t know the subject. Even worse, they may feel betrayed. They may never trust you or read your work again and, worst of all, relay that opinion to all their friends. Despite modern marketing, word of mouth is still the most important advertisement.
Often gun enthusiasts can be the most unforgiving of mistakes. Use metal-cased bullets in a Civil War revolver and you’ll never hear the end of it.
The most insidious of anachronisms is word anachronisms. When writing—especially when revising and polishing—I keep etymonline.com open at all times, to check the origin of words and phrases. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used a word or phrase that sounded old, only to find it WAS old—but began in World War I (or some other era), far too late for my story. More rarely, I’ve seen words or phrases I thought were modern that dated from, say, the 1400’s.
Lastly, I promised to mention the two governing bodies—they don’t really govern—of Historical Fiction: the Historical Novel Society, and the Historical Writers of America. Established in 1997, the Historical Novel Society is an international organization, with conferences in the UK in even-numbered years and the US/North America in odd years. Last August they met in Glasgow, Scotland. Next year the conference will be in National Harbor, Maryland, somewhere close to Washington. They even have occasional conferences in Australia. Historical Fiction is generally more popular in Britain than the US, probably because theirs is such a longer, richer history and because their glory days lie in the past. HNS is for all lovers of Historical Fiction, readers as well as writers. Membership is $50 a year, which includes a quarterly magazine. Their website is historicalnovelsociety.org.
Historical Writers of America is an organization for historical writers of all types, fiction and non-fiction. They, too, have a conference every year, in the USA. As a matter of fact their conference is going on in Rhode Island as we speak. Their membership is $75. Their website is historicalwritersofamerica.org. Both organizations have chapters, but I don’t know where the closest are for either. As a disclaimer, I have been a member of HNS for three years but am not a member of HWA.
That’s it for me. Any questions?